Can Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes Help Fight Disease?

– Ah, the beginning of summer. Longer days, warmer
weather, and mosquitoes. (upbeat techno music) If you’re anything like me, or really, any normal
person on this planet, you hate mosquitoes and
their nasty little bites. Mosquitoes are no joke. Worldwide, Malaria alone kills
over 400,000 people a year. While in the US, we don’t have to worry
about Malaria anymore, mosquitoes can still spread West Nile, Dengue Fever, Chikagunya,
and most recently, Zika. So, managing these flying
Grim Reapers is a big deal. There are even whole government agencies dedicated to keeping them in check. It’s usually an all-hands-on-deck
type of situation where we just throw everything at them. We turn over buckets to
reduce water breeding grounds, we spray pesticides, we release soil bacteria
to kill their eggs, and we even drop mosquito
larva eating fish into the water where they can breed. And now, some scientists
are even taking it to the next level and going
after the mosquito’s DNA. The British company, Oxitec, has come up with a new weapon
against these tiny tormentors. It’s none other than genetically modified versions of the mosquitoes themselves. They’ve been engineered to carry a gene that causes the mosquitoes to produce too much of a certain protein, which ends up killing them. So, for the first time in the US, scientists are itchin’ to release these mutant mosquitoes for a trial run in everyone’s favorite
state to hate, Florida. (mellow music) I’m just playin’, I got love for Florida. One of our producers is from there. – Hi guys! – (laughs) The scientists
are looking at Monroe County, this little section of paradise, and more specifically, Key haven. This place is home to over 40 different species of mosquitoes, and the residents here
are divided on the trial. While the media covered the
pros and cons of this approach, a small but vocal group kept buggin’ out on a lot of the media coverage. – We don’t have enough risk assessment. – We don’t wanna be lab rats. – We are humans and we don’t like being treated like guinea pigs! – So, how risky are these
mutant mosquitoes really? All right, so the species
we’re talkin’ about is the Aedes aegypti, they’re the ones that carry Zika, Chikagunya,
and Dengue Fever. Originally from Africa,
they’re invasive to Florida, and these guys are nasty. Well, it’s actually not the guys, it’s the ladies who are the nasty ones. They’re the ones that bite you, spread diseases, and reproduce like crazy. And while these little
buggers make up only a small percentage of the
mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, they’re really hard to control. They thrive in residential areas, that makes it easier to bite people, and they can breed in the
littlest bits of water. For the trial, the plan is to release the modified males into the wild, remember the guys don’t bite, then they’ll mate with the wild ladies. Then in a couple days, they’ll die, but before they do they’ll
pass that killer gene on to their babies. Once those babies hatch, they’ll die before they
even become adults, so they don’t even get
the chance to reproduce. I just wanna say that’s
like the saddest line I’ve ever read in Above
the Noise’ history. So, that sounds good in theory, right? But does it work? Oxitec has done a couple
of trials in Brazil, Panama and the Cayman Islands, which ended up reducing
the mosquito populations, and it’s not just the company saying this. Their results are published in a peer-reviewed science journal, which means outside scientists
have looked at the data and given it the thumbs up. We talk about peer-reviewed journals in this video right up in there. What about the risks from the mosquitoes? Well I’m glad I asked. Before this goes to trial, the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration,
has to give it the okay. They concluded that releasing
these modified mosquitoes in Key Haven would not
harm people, other animals, or the environment, and in
case you were wondering, they ruled out the possibility
of these mutant mosquitoes passing their modified DNA to humans. You can read the whole 158 page report, there’s a link in the description. But there’s still some people
who are against the trial. Critics want more peer-reviewed research before exposing the
public to this experiment, and some advocacy groups
like Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety have even threatened to sue the FDA. They claim the FDA didn’t
do a good enough job weighing all the risks, especially the impact
the mosquitoes could have on threatened and endangered species. And then there are others
who have ethical concerns. They think we should not be messin’ with the DNA of animals, period. Okay. So if the FDA says it’s safe, but a group of people in the community aren’t happy about it, what do you do? Well, the Florida Keys Mosquito
Control District decided ask the voters. They put two measures on the ballot. One for all of Monroe County, asking if in general people
are in favor of a trial somewhere in the county, and another measure just for Key Haven. Monroe County residents voted yes while Key Haven residents voted no. So, Key Haven is out. Now, Oxitec and the
Mosquito Control District are looking for a new
location for the trial in Monroe County. And they’ll have to go
through the approval process all over again. This means no modified
mosquitoes any time soon. But this has raised some
really interesting questions. How do we know when a new public
health technology is safe? How would you weigh potential
risk of the modified mosquitos versus the risk of getting
a mosquito borne disease? Let us know in the comments below. Thanks for watching and
if you like this video make sure you check out our other ones, tell your friends to
check out our other ones, and then you guys can
also subscribe together to the channel to watch all the videos. And, side note, if you’re
super into mosquitoes, you should check out our
friends at Deep Look, another PBS Digital Studios
show, produced by KQED and they did this awesome
video on mosquito bites. So, check that out and
thanks for watching!

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